Cautionary Tales – General Ludd’s Rage Against the Machines

18th August, 2023

1812. A band of “Luddites” is laying siege to a textile mill in the North of England, under cover of night. They plan to destroy the machines that are replacing their jobs. But mill owner William Cartwright is prepared: he’s fortified his factory with skilled marksmen, fearsome eighteen-inch metal spikes and barrels of sulphuric acid.

Today “Luddite” is a term of mockery — a description for someone who’s scared of technology. But in 1812, Luddism was no laughing matter for the likes of Cartwright. He plans to teach the intruders a lesson…

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Further reading

The details in our account of the attack on Cartwright’s mill largely trace back to The Risings of the Luddites, an 1880 book by historian Frank Peel based on a combination of reminiscences and oral histories handed down locally with contemporary written accounts.

Many historians have written about the Luddite movement and how it should be interpreted. We found E. P. Thompson’s account in his 1963 classic The Making of the English Working Class, and Malcolm I Thomis’s 1970 book The Luddites: Machine Breaking in Regency England, to be especially useful.

For more on the parallels to our current moment, see two books published in 2023: Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson’s Power and Progress: Our Thousand-Year Struggle over Technology and Prosperity, and Brian Merchant’s Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech.

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